I purposefully raised my children to be independent and do their own thing, but it's ironic that those proverbial wings I've given my boys are now keeping me from doing my thing — gathering my family around the table for dinner.
I've been thinking about this a lot since I read a thoughtful, practical piece in The New York Times recently about feeding a crowd in the summer. Author Jennifer Steinhauer not only cooks for her partner and four teenage daughters in their "so-called blended family," but she frequently needs to feed the girls' friends and other visitors as well. In the summer, her kitchen turns into a "24-hour diner, including the part where someone else does the dishes."
She goes on to give tips, some of them from Cheryl Flake, wife of Sen. Jeff Flake from Arizona, on scaling recipes up, stretching protein, stocking the right tools and pantry items, and the need for good speakers for the music you play while cooking. Having wine on hand while you cook "is optional, but advised."
But she also acknowledges that this feeding-the-masses challenge is the "flip side of cooking for the few and dispersed, the other modern obstacle to an easy, sit-down family dinner."
After 18 years of having a full house and a kitchen that was often a 24-hour diner, the only ones now eating regularly in my kitchen are me and the dog. Since my oldest son graduated from high school a month ago, I think I've cooked only two sit-down dinners. There are even days when the only dirty dishes in the sink are mine.
There are reasons for my quiet kitchen and regularly empty dining table. My sons have jobs, and they frequently work evenings. My youngest also spends a couple of weeks every summer volunteering out of town and a few other weeks staying at his dad's place. My oldest son now has his own car and is out with friends often when he's not working.
Although the way I've raised my children makes this situation unsurprising, somehow it snuck up on me. Two months ago, I was planning several dinners a week. For the past month, I've been pouting about this quick change, and The New York Times article made me pout a little more — through no fault of the author.
Now, I'm ready to move on; no more pouting. I'm choosing to adapt and formulate a new plan so I can still make sure there's good food for my sons — no matter when they stop by to eat it.
Chose the right recipes
In her article, Steinhauer talked about choosing the right recipes — the ones that scale up. I need to choose recipes that reheat well. When someone comes in tired and hungry from work at 9:30 p.m., they can put together a good meal quickly. For me, that will mean lots of slow cooker dishes. Fortunately I already have a repertoire of summer slow cooker recipes that includes several sandwich fillings that will reheat easily. I'll be searching for other recipes that fit this criteria.
Portion things out
I'm going to use the food containers in my overflowing cabinet to portion out foods — putting some in the fridge and some in the freezer — instead of leaving them in one big container. This will be helpful in two ways. It will be easier for the boys to grab foods and heat them up, and it will save on food waste. If the portions in the fridge look like they aren't going to get eaten in a timely manner, I can just throw them in the freezer.
Put fruits and veggies in plain sight
All the fruits and vegetables that come into the house will get cut up right after I put the rest of the groceries away. Then I'll leave them in glass containers at eye level. No more uncut cantaloupes that get pushed to the back of the fridge or grapes that languish in the crisper. If one of the boys is hanging around when the groceries get home, I may dragoon him into doing the chopping. I want them to participate as much as possible in feeding themselves well.
Spell it out
I've started to do this when I go away for a few days and my oldest son is home alone, but I think I'm going to do this regularly. I write a list showing what's in the fridge that needs to get used up and ideas on how to use it. It doesn't always occur to my kids that if there are tortillas, leftover chicken, cheese and veggies that those ingredients can make a quick quesadilla. By listing the foods and how they can be combined, it will help them make quick decisions and quick meals — and maybe get them in the habit of putting together ingredients on their own. Plus, this will help curb food waste.
Chill until the school year
My oldest is living at home for his first year of college. His brother still has at least three years at home. When school starts in September, they'll be home more and regular dinners will resume, although probably less frequently than before. I'm going to chill and let the summer unfold as it will. If there are chances to have a sit-down dinner with one or both of them, it will be all the more special. And if I really feel the need to feed a bunch of people, I'll invite some friends over and cook for them.
What about you? Do you have any other suggestions for getting me through this summer of change?